Dutch rail crossings must be safer, Safety Board says

Arriva train derailed after crash with milk truck near Winsum, 18 Nov 2016
Arriva train derailed after crash with milk truck near Winsum, 18 Nov 2016@rooney25 / Twitter

The number of victims of accidents at rail crossings in the Netherlands is unacceptably high and must and can be reduced, the Dutch Safety Board said in a report on three serious rail accidents in Winsum, Harlingen and Wouw in 2016 and 2017, NOS reports.

Safety can be increased, for example, by placing boom gates that close the entire road, and by eliminating unguarded crossings. In the long run, this should lead to no more railway accidents.

The Safety Board said that the Netherlands is the only country in Europe with a lot of train traffic and a large number of railway crossings, and that is not a good combination. Furthermore, traffic is only increasing both on the rails and on the roads, and that increases the risk of accidents.

According to the Safety Board, the responsibility for rail crossings is currently too fragmented. The lack of control also means that dangerous situations are not dealt with quickly enough. The board also said that ProRail does not examine rail accidents structurally, and so "potential safety gains" remain unused. 

The obvious solution is placing the responsibility for rail crossings with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, according to the board. The government should show more ambition to reduce the number of accidents. The Safety Board added that safety on rail crossings increased over the past 15 years, but this development is now standing still. 

An average of 11 people die every year in accidents on railway crossings. Most accidents happen at guarded crossings. They must therefore be better secured, so that no one can cross when the boom gates are closed. According to the Safety Board, unguarded rail crossings are unacceptable with the current high train speeds. These must be secured or eliminated. 

ProRail director Pier Eringa is "very happy" with the Safety Board report, despite the criticism on ProRail's role in accidents. Eringa recognizes that conclusion in part. "We are working very hard on the subject of rail crossings", he said, according to the broadcaster. "The best rail crossing is no crossing. Like the Safety Board, we aim for zero crossings in the Netherlands."

But in practice, that is difficult to achieve, Eringa added. This has to do with, among other things, the fragmented responsibility mentioned in the Safety Board report. "Sometimes we want to remove a rail crossing, for example if there are relatively many crossings close together in a municipality. But now municipalities can still hinder us. The city council blocks our plans, for example because there are objections from local residents who are afraid that they will cycle further." The ProRail director wants the government to show more "perseverance" in solving this problem. 

Finances also plays a role, Eringa said. "Closing a railway crossing costs roughly a million euros. And we have almost 2,000 crossings, so you do the math."

State Secretary Stientje van Veldhoven of Infrastructure and Water Management calls safety around railway crossings "very important". She is working hard with the regional authorities to solve the most dangerous situations, she said to NOS. "An extra budget was recently made available." She is pleased with the Safety Board's thorough investigation. "We will use the recommendations to further tighten our safety policy where necessary."